Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Musicspeak: walking into love

One of my most trying times at the conservatory was the semester we studied 20th Century music. Lectures and tutorials weren't the problem; it was the Weekly Tape. You see, for every period in history we studied, we had to listen to a cassette tape (yes, it was that long ago) containing music from that time. Listening to music as an assignment was usually my favorite part; it was like reading To Kill A Mockingbird for school.

But that was before I was required to listen to 120 minutes of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, followed by Steve Reich and other avant garde composers every week. (John Cage's 4'33'' was especially uncomfortable. Was I supposed to sit with the earphones in my head, listening to silence for exactly 4'33"? At least White On White doesn't demand its viewer to be still for a specific length of time.)

Did you follow the links? Did you listen to the music? What do you think?

I felt tortured.

But a strange thing happened after I listened to each tape multiple times; some of the music began to make sense. I started to enjoy, and later, love some of what was initially meaningless noise, such as Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht

This didn't happen to every piece of music. I remained unmoved by some of the compositions, despite acquiring familiarity and knowledge about them. I understood the purpose of their composers, appreciate their ideas, and maybe even admire the results at an intellectual manner, but I never sought out those pieces after that semester.

The many hours spent listening and re-listening to all that music was necessary. To be a musician, I had to know how the story of music has continued in the 20th Century.

Writers read. We do it because that's probably the reason we became writers. We do it because we love it. We do it to learn about other writers.

And we do it because we need to know the traditions on which our art is based.

I have a number of books I feel I need to read but find it difficult / intimidating. This post is primarily a pep-talk to myself, that I should put in the extra effort and time to read these not-super-accessible books.

Falling in love is exhilarating. Within a heart beat we completely embrace the object of our affection. Sometimes the feeling can even turn into something less exciting but longer lasting. Sometimes it doesn't.

Walking into love: taking slow, occasionally painful, steps, isn't as exciting. But it can lead to something deep and stable, something that makes us better writers, richer people.

Do you have books that are on the TBR, but also SI (Somewhat Intimidating) list? Have you had the experience of falling in love with a book that your originally could not get through? I would love to hear your stories.


tanita davis said...

Hahahah! I felt challenged to hit those links, and geeze louise. Me and that Schoenberg piece could not hang together AT ALL. I did NOT feel the love. However: I quite liked the Steve Reich piece - it's like ...I dunno, listening to echoes. It grows on you. And the Webern and the Berg were okay, too. (I had to look up the Webern [you used the Bern link twice accidentally], so not sure if the link is the one you wanted me to hear.)

There is nothing currently on my TBR which I find challenging (Oh, but wait! The Cybils is coming!) but I recall the first freshman in college attempt at reading To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

There are no paragraph breaks in that book. NONE. It just goes on, and on, and bloody on. And I thought, "I'm going to die."

But I did not. Sure, I struggled - and had to come up for air. I didn't finish the novel before the quiz we had on it, but I stuck with it. I tried again, a year or two later, and it was - easier. It somehow made sense. That year, I struggled through Mary Wollstoncraft and Ezra Pound, and it was only because I'd already met Woolf and come out alive.

And every few years, I reread it, to remind myself that I can, and I did, and I do love the subtle tensions and the strengthening role of women -- so lovely. It gave me courage, when I was in grad school, to sink my teeth into some flat-out challenging books, W.G. Sebald's Austerlizt, which is truly the hardest, least accessible book I've read in my life, but ... I fell in love with it.

Maybe it's like some people with shellfish. If you have to use a little pick to get out all the good bits, it's a more valuable food to you. (Isn't that why lobster is so expensive? And isn't this a silly analogy from a vegetarian?)

YA books that I find challenging usually contain a.) a mistake that I cringe from personally, or a major embarrassment, or b.) a relationship which I find implausible. Most of the time I can otherwise get into them, and imagine myself there.

I'd love to know what you're dreading!

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks for your comments, Tanita, and for providing the examples. It's heartening to hear books, like music, can grow on us

The books that I want to read, but am afraid I'll be bored or not get are the classics that most English Majors and MFAs have read: Brothers K, Moby Dick, Dorian Gray, etc.

ps I fixed the Webern link. See what you think.